"I'm...sorry, Catherine." The mortification in his tear-streaked face tore at Catherine's heart. She had pleaded with Vincent to remain with her in their chamber, but his humiliation and embarrassment could not be assuaged. He turned and strode quickly from the room in his haste to put distance between himself and the scene of his shame.


Catherine sighed gustily, knowing she could never catch up with him if he was determined to evade her. And, truthfully, she couldn't think of any other argument to make which would soothe him, if he could not be soothed by all she had already said. She had tried to explain that it didn't matter, that there was no pressure, that she just needed him to hold her, that the physical aspect of their love had never been paramount...she'd cajoled and comforted and reassured, but to no avail.


Throwing the covers back, she slipped from the bed. It was too cold and lonely to sleep there without him. She padded into their common room and made herself comfortable on the loveseat, wrapping her legs in an afghan her Grandmother had made -- one of the many personal items from Above which she'd moved into their home chambers Below. Lighting a few candles to chase away the gloom, she picked up the novel she hadn't had a chance to even look at in days and began to read. But she wasn't able to concentrate, finding herself going back again and again to the situation she and Vincent faced...and to the first time it had happened....


"Vincent?" She rose on one elbow and gazed up at him in concern. They had begun loving each other softly, gently, but he had pulled away suddenly, turning from her and sitting up in bed. "What is it?"


Vincent was shaken. He loved Catherine with a passion so pure and deep that it scalded his soul. His desire for her overwhelmed him at times. But tonight...tonight...he couldn't.... His body would not respond. His mind and his heart were oh, so willing, but.... He was embarrassed to reveal this fact to Catherine.


Sensitive to his mood within their Bond, Catherine understood the deep unease he felt was rooted in some physical aspect of their loving. Gently she placed her hand on his shoulder, squeezing it in reassurance. But instead of responding as he usually did -- by leaning into her touch -- he abruptly rose, evading her placating hand. Reaching for his robe, he shrugged it over his shoulders before sitting in the old carved chair near their bed. He rested his head against the back of the chair, closing his eyes, and tried to quiet the racing of his heart.

"Vincent?" She rose and left the bed to kneel at his side. The Bond now swirled with some inner turmoil which she couldn't comprehend. They had been loving each other so sweetly...and then...suddenly...this.


"I...cannot explain it, Catherine. I'm sorry...I should not have retreated from you just now."


"Why did you?"


He leaned forward suddenly, his face now very close to hers, and his eyes searched hers as if hoping to find an answer there. Whatever he sought, he didn't find, and in defeat he leaned his forehead against hers and whispered, "It is...not your fault, my love. I...don't know what's happening. I...."


Belatedly, Catherine realized what the matter was. Normally, from the moment he entered their bed, Vincent's arousal was complete...and very evident. Tonight, she recalled, his erection had been...less insistent that usual. But Vincent had concentrated their foreplay on her pleasure, and she hadn't really...gotten around to noticing that he was unable to sustain an erection. This had never been a problem before, and the way he always responded so eagerly to her, she had honestly never thought it could be. Obviously, she hadn't been paying enough attention to him. She scolded herself over that. The last thing she ever wanted was to take this wonderful man for granted.


Rubbing her forehead against his, she purred, "Come back to bed, my love? Let us bring all of our powers of...concentration...to bear on this situation?" She kissed the tip of his nose, then, with her own, stroked the downy fur which covered him there.


Vincent lifted his head and gave her a small smile. He nodded once, then allowed her to lead him back to their bed.


Catherine pushed him gently until he fell back onto the bed. She followed, draping herself over him, rubbing herself sensuously against his hard-muscled length. He moaned softly at the contact, and his left hand came up to caress her shoulder, his claw tips lightly grazing her skin. Whispering huskily, "Just lie back, relax, and let me do all the work," Catherine began the kind of erotic assault which had never failed to inflame her beloved. With her hot, wet tongue and her dextrous fingers, she became a wanton siren, summoning his responses from the depths of his being. She felt a low growl develop in his chest as she bewitched him with the physical sensations she was creating.


Eyes closed in concentration, Vincent began an unconscious panting as the erotic delight of her pliant flesh molding to his own hard body caused thrills and shivers to run down his spine. Her body tantalized him, tormented him in the most delicious ways. From the first, he had found this teasing, lustily playful side of Catherine a delightful surprise -- a side of her he had never imagined existed. He realized with chagrin how much of her own sensual nature she had repressed for his comfort during those long years in which he had denied them both this pleasure. Now, he voluntarily gave himself up to her ardent seduction, willing his body to respond as he desperately wished it to.


She lovingly tormented him, stroked him, worshiped him -- with her mouth, her hands, her body. She poured a living flame of desire through their Bond, immolating his soul with a sensual fire. He was drunk with her, with an intoxication that was pure bliss. In his mind, in the core of his being, he cried out with the ecstasy of her...but his body...would not respond.


Frustration, bewilderment, confusion....but most of all, humiliation...swept through him. What was wrong with him?! Unnerved, he finally grasped Catherine's shoulders and gently but insistently shifted her. Struggling against his intentions, she nevertheless was firmly deposited by his side on the bed. He sat up again and reached for his cloak. Murmuring a husky "Forgive me," he left the chamber.


Catherine followed him out. She made tea and he accepted a cup, but he could not articulate his feelings other than to thank her for her company. Long into the night they sat together, in silence, taking what comfort they could in the other's presence, as their Bond roiled and whirled with the unrest in Vincent's heart.


Three weeks ago. It had been three weeks ago. And since that night...much as he wanted her, much as she tempted him, each time they tried to make love...his flesh failed him.


The image of her Bondmate's anguished face haunted her as slowly...finally...her eyes drifted shut. The book slipped from her fingers and thudded almost noiselessly to the carpet. Wrapped in the warm cocoon of her afghan, Catherine slept, her heart calling through their Bond for her lover to come home to her.

Vincent didn't return that night.


_ _ _


Catherine awoke with a start when Geoffrey shook her gently, reminding her that she'd be late for her work detail if she didn't leave soon.


"Thank you, Geoffrey." She yawned widely, then reached out to hug him quickly before rising and stretching. "I lost track of time while I was reading."


He didn't ask what she was doing in the common room, curled up under the soft knitted covering, rather than in her own bed, but his eyes reflected his puzzlement. "Should I...should I wake Dad, too?" Wide brown eyes stared questioningly at her.

She didn't want to worry him about Vincent, but how could she explain something like this to a child, even one as perceptive as her son? He wasn't easy to deceive, and she had little heart to do it. Still, it was easier right now than having a heart-to-heart -- and she was already running late. "No, sweetheart. He's...he's already up." That was true enough...as far as it went. She hoped he wouldn't ask the obvious question -- then why didn't he awaken us? Seeking to distract him from that logical line of inquiry, she blurted, "Do I have enough time for a quick shower first?"


Thick brown curls flew as the boy shook his head. "I woke up kinda late myself. We've both already missed breakfast. It's close to 8, and William gets pretty mad if you're late for kitchen clean-up -- I know." He smiled ruefully at her.


"I'd better get more into the rhythm of things around here...and quick!" Catherine grimaced, then rushed into the bedchamber. "Can you get organized by yourself this morning, honey?" she shouted over her shoulder as she began rummaging through the armoire containing her clothing.


Geoffrey smiled to himself. As if he hadn't been doing that for years already! All the children Below were remarkably self-sufficient. They were given more freedom -- and more responsibility -- than their counterparts Above, and most, like Geoffrey, rose to the challenge well. True, since the formal adoption ceremony, when he'd left the boys' dormitory chamber and come to live with his new Mom and Dad, Catherine had taken charge of his "organization," and he'd readily and happily indulged her. He did it more because it gave her such pleasure than because he needed it -- and because it made him feel really good that his Mom was so concerned about his well-being. He truly enjoyed the fuss she made over him. But this morning, he knew he could easily do without her ministrations. Realizing she was waiting for his answer, he quickly shouted back, "No problem, Mom! See you at lunch!" He scampered out of the room, still a bit uneasy over the odd circumstance of finding his Mom asleep on the couch, but somewhat reassured by her words that nothing was seriously the matter.


_ _ _


"Where's Dad?" Geoffrey looked up at his Mom as she crossed to him after half-filling a plate with small portions of salad and fruit. He sat with his own more substantially filled plate before him -- he'd been patiently awaiting his parents' arrival to start eating. Well...he'd snuck one bite of cheese roll, but that didn't count.


Catherine sank onto the bench and placed her plate on the table before her. "I...don't know, honey. He's probably just been delayed. I'm sure he'll be here soon." She said this last without much conviction. She had been so sure he'd show up for the midday meal with his family. Since she'd quit her job three weeks ago, they had made it a point to eat lunch and dinner together whenever their work details allowed. This was the first such meal that had been missed by one of them since two weeks ago, when an emergency had called most of the able-bodied men to shore up a collapsed tunnel damaged by one of Mouse's too-enthusiastic experiments. But she had heard nothing from him since he had fled their bedchamber in the early hours of the morning. Sighing, she finally said, "Why don't we start...without him."


Geoffrey needed no coaxing, tucking into his lunch eagerly. He made quick work of it, then grabbed another of William's delicious cheese rolls, hoping no one would catch him taking more than his share, just this once. He did love these rolls...and if Dad wasn't here yet...well, maybe he wouldn't mind someone else having his.


Noting his Mom's worried expression, Geoffrey dropped the roll on his plate and patted her hand. She glanced quickly at him, amazed anew at his perception and empathy. Snaking her arm around his waist, she gave him a hard, quick hug, pressing a kiss to the top of his head before releasing him and beginning to eat. Not really hungry, Catherine picked at her food, then absently offered her cheese roll to her son. Grateful for this unexpected largesse, he pocketed the treat to savor at a later time. He'd already had two, and having eaten his lunch with great gusto, found his appetite was significantly diminished. Much as he adored the rolls, he couldn't eat so many in one sitting.


Geoffrey jumped up to clear their plates and returned swiftly to his Mother's side. Catherine still sat as he'd left her, lost in thought. Gently he approached her and placed his cheek against her shoulder. "Mom? He'll be OK. Dad can take care of himself."


She pressed her own cheek down on the top of her son's head, and he could feel her nodding. "I know, sweetheart."


He moved to sit on the bench, his back to the table, so that he could look his Mother in the face as he continued the conversation. With all the clamor of lunchtime activity around them, they were as isolated in their communion as if they were alone in the room. "What happened between you guys, Mom? Can't you tell me?"


Catherine stared at him in consternation. She couldn't explain this.


Geoffrey urged her. "Did you have a fight? Was it...about me? Did...did I do something wrong?"


Understanding dawned, and Catherine quickly assured him that he was blameless. How like a child to assume that trouble between his parents was his fault. And Geoffrey, more than most sons, was more conscious of his actions, more eager to please, cognizant as he was of the fact that he was chosen by, not born to, the couple who were his parents. As much as she tried to instill in him the confidence that they would never, could never be parted, she worried that a part of him would always fear the possibility that through some action of his, he would sever the bond between them. "No, sweetheart, I promise, this has nothing to do with you. I hope you know that I have never, not even for one second, regretted that you are my son. And Vincent feels the same way. We both love you dearly."


Relief was visible in the young boy's eyes, but his concern for his Mother's sadness was still apparent. One answer had been given, but he still did not know the cause of her distress. "Is there anything I can do?"


Shaking her head, Catherine mustered a small smile. "Just keep loving us both, OK?" At her son's nod, she reminded him, "Don't you have a class with Father about now?"


Prompted, he jumped up and said, "Oh...yeah! Better run! I don't want Father mad at me! See ya later, 'K?" He pressed a quick kiss on her cheek and dashed from the dining chamber. Catherine looked after him fondly, then shook herself and stood to finish the clearing and begin her wash-up chores.


_ _ _


Walking down the corridors toward their living chambers, Catherine was silent and withdrawn. Via the pipes, Vincent had requested that Father take over the classes he was to teach, but had left no word regarding where he was or what he was doing. Dinner had passed and he had still not made an appearance in the Hub.


When Father took her aside during the dinner hour to ask her, she was forced to admit that she didn't know where Vincent was. His gray eyes intense and curious, Father held further questions back with a visible effort. Grateful that he was showing some tact and restraint in a matter concerning his son, Catherine patted his arm but turned away. She was anxious to put distance between them, for she did not want to be maneuvered into a discussion with anyone concerning Vincent's absence, least of all with him. The man had a positive knack for making her self-conscious and unnerved when discussing her Bondmate. Even though their personal resentments toward each other had long ago been laid aside, the subtle power play over the man they both loved continued. It would not do -- not at all! -- for him to be privy to this current...situation...between them. Now, she and Geoffrey walked hand in hand down the less-used tunnels which led to their chambers.


The young man chewed worriedly on his lower lip, thinking hard. His Mom seemed so upset and sad, and he couldn't figure out why. She'd said that she and Dad hadn't fought, and that he personally hadn't done anything wrong, and he believed her -- she never lied to him. So it was something else. But...what?




Distractedly, Catherine responded with a "Hmmm?"


"Is...is Dad...sick?"


This got his Mom's attention, but good. She stopped in her tracks and demanded, "Why ever would you ask that?"


A little uncomfortable with her intense scrutiny, he hurried to explain. "Well...I overheard him talking with Kanin the other day when you were teaching your Civics class. They walked into our common chamber together -- I was lying on the couch, reading -- and they stopped when I sat up and said hello. Dad was surprised to see me -- he asked why I wasn't in class, but you remember, Pascal had to cancel class at the last minute because Zak wasn't available to take over in the pipe chamber?" At her nod, he continued. "Well, I didn't hear everything they were saying, but just as they were walking in, Dad said something like, 'If anything were to happen to me, I would trust you to care for my family, Kanin.' Why would he be worried, Mom? Unless he was sick?"


Catherine knelt and grasped her son by the shoulders. She looked deeply into his eyes as she said, "Listen to me, Geoffrey. Whatever is happening with your Dad right now, it has nothing to do with you or his health...or anything else you can imagine. He is just...going through some things in his head, things that concern him more than they should. But that's your Dad -- he always worries more than he needs to. Don't you worry, please. He'll be fine. He just needs to think for a while, and he sometimes does that best when he's away from everyone else, you know that."


"But...it must be pretty bad if he had to go away for so long. He's never done that before!" Tears were starting to gather in the corners of his eyes. Despite her assurances, his Mother's words had caused him to worry more than he had before.


Catherine's shoulders drooped. "I know. Since we became a family, he hasn't felt the need to...go away for a while, like he used to do. But, sweetheart, we must trust him. He'll come back when he's ready." Her own eyes filled with tears, as her frustration and pain rose to the surface, set free by the tender concern of her son.


Geoffrey was startled by his Mother's tears. Clumsily, he reached out to her, pulling her stiffly into an embrace. She had been comforting him all day, when she obviously needed comfort of her own. His distress over causing her to cry burning in his throat, he whispered hoarsely to her over and over, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."


As Vincent turned the last corner into the tunnel which led to his home chambers, he caught sight of the pitiful tableau his family made. He was bereft. How could he approach them, how could he make amends for this anguish in their hearts...because of him? Leaning with one arm against the tunnel wall, he held his other hand to his heart, breathing harshly. Oh, Catherine! his heart cried out silently, you have given up so much...and gotten so little in return! He shook his head to clear it. He thought he was ready to face her, but he knew now he was not...might not ever be again. With a despairing sob, he turned and strode down the tunnel the way he had come.


Catherine looked up over Geoffrey's shoulder as she heard the shuffle of feet on the tunnel floor. They were far enough from the noise of the Hub that the sound of someone's footsteps carried a long way. Seeing the cloaked back of her Bondmate recede down the tunnel, she rose and shouted, "Vincent!" When she saw he would not be stayed, she urgently instructed Geoffrey to wait for her in his bedchamber, then left him to race toward Vincent.


Catching up to him, she flung herself against his retreating form, nearly knocking him off balance by the force of her tackle. He grabbed her to stop her from tumbling as his shoulder hit the wall, breaking his fall. "Please...stop!" she panted, upset that he had compelled her to run him down. She was surprised when he shook off her restraining arm and continued to walk away, ignoring her calls. A burst of anger suffusing their Bond, she again caught up to him, but this time she blocked his path, stretching her arm out to place a hand on his chest. Breathless and indignant, she challenged him. "You'll have to...run over me if you...want to continue to...run from me, Vincent!"


Anguished sapphire eyes lifted to her flashing green ones. The tracks of tears clearly showed on his face, even in the relatively dim light cast by the torches. He couldn't bear to speak to her...couldn't she see that? He couldn't bear to feel the compassionate tenderness which swiftly replaced the anger in their Bond. No...it was all too much. Brokenly, he begged, "Let me pass...please, Catherine! I cannot...." He couldn't even finish his thought. She must know, must sense from him the desperation, the hopelessness with which he stood before her.

Seeing that Vincent would not struggle against her at the moment, Catherine wrapped her arms around him. Obviously, she could not hold him back, not if he truly wished to go. But he had spent too much time alone, brooding. Reverting to that old habit of his frightened her. She had to find a way to break through to him -- he was causing himself...and her...such unnecessary torment.


"I love you, Vincent." She said this with a passionate intensity, willing him to feel it in the depths of his being, willing it to bridge the chasm which existed between their hearts at this moment.


"Why?" He wrenched her arms from around him and held her away from him, almost shaking her as he asked that soul-searing question.


Catherine was dumbfounded. "Why? What kind of a question is that? We endured trials and tests most couples never face until we Joined our hearts and our lives before our entire community. And now you question the single fact upon which every decision I have made in the past four years has been based?"


Vincent released her and turned away, slumping against the tunnel wall. His voice barely a whisper, he replied, "You have made a fool's bargain, Catherine. You have given up...everything. Everything! And I...am not...cannot...."


Cutting him off, afraid of what he was about to say, she snapped, "Don't you dare second-guess my judgment! Only I can weigh my life and determine what matters most and what trade-offs are worth the price!" Softening, she went to him and gently stroked his cheek with the backs of her fingers. "You are everything to me, Vincent! How can you say I have given up 'everything' when you are standing before me -- mine, forever mine? I would fight the Devil if I had to, to keep you. Don't tell me I have to fight you, too?"


Vincent shook his head, dislodging her caressing fingers, denying himself even that tiny comfort. Eyes closed, body tensed, clutching the wall for support, he said what he felt must be said. "When we were first Joined, I knew...I could never give you the kind of life you deserve, but...I was content to know you treasured the time you spent Below...with me...enough to...let me share a part of your life. It was...enough." Despair cracked his voice, shattering it into the harshest of whispers. "But...when you gave up your life Above -- everything, Catherine -- to come Below.... How could I ever hope to replace all you lost in that act? And now...I cannot fulfill...even your most...basic...needs...."


He couldn't continue. His shame was complete. He sank to his knees before her, arms hanging at his sides, head bowed, in abject surrender. He mustered the strength for one final plea: "You..must...leave me. Leave me, Catherine. Take Geoffrey...and go back to your world."


Catherine was stunned. She knew that their difficulties in bed these past weeks were torturing him, but try as she might, she could never fathom the cause of their troubles. Now it struck her through the heart like a thunderbolt. How could anyone expect to be someone else's entire world, completely responsible for that person's happiness? And yet, that's the burden Vincent had assumed. No wonder he was cracking under the weight.


In a voice quavering with emotion, she murmured, "Oh, my love...." She knelt before him and grasped his hands, kissing the backs of his fingers before holding them to her heart. "My dearest love! What made you think that you had to 'replace' anything? If I caused you to feel that way, I apologize."


She squeezed his fingers, urging him silently to look into her eyes, willing him to see the truth, the certainty which shone in them. But he would not face her. Resigned, she went on, "I turned my back on what I left Above with no regrets, no lingering looks. Surely you felt that in me?" She let go of one of his hands and grasped his chin, gently but insistently lifting it. "Look at me, my heart? Please?' she whispered, urging him within the Bond as well as with her words.


Unwillingly, his eyes fluttered open and caught hers once, briefly, but the agony of facing her was too much, and he closed them again.


She persisted, desperate now, trying to break through to his rational mind, hoping by an appeal to reason to shatter this phantasm of his own making. "Vincent...I am the only one who is responsible for my happiness, the only one! And the only way I can be happy...completely happy...is to live the rest of my life with you, here Below. Would you rather I live an unhappy life Above than a happy one Below?"


After a long moment, a softly whispered "No" emanated from Vincent's lips.


Sighing, she admitted, "I never realized the kind of pressure you would put on yourself when I began living Below full time, my love. I wish you had shared this with me so I could have put your mind at ease." She leaned toward him and placed a tender, reverent kiss upon his lips.

Vincent trembled at that intimate touch. So much was expressed in that sweet caress of her lips against his. It gave him the courage to look upon Catherine's face. Her luminous green eyes spoke of her concern and unwavering love, emphasizing all her words, compelling him to understand. He was captivated anew by all he saw reflected in those beautiful eyes...and he became lost in their depths as he always did. Those eyes would never lie to him. And what he read there began to melt the icy dread which had clutched at his soul for weeks. Yet the fear remained -- she had given up her world for him, and he was poor recompense for a whole world.


Catherine smiled warmly at him before continuing, fervently and emphatically. "My life is filled now with a series of satisfactions -- small and large -- just as my days are filled with the many activities which keep me busy. Having you close, knowing I can be with you anytime I wish...or you wish...it's more wonderful than I ever imagined. Just knowing you're nearby gives me such pleasure, even if I'm not with you. How can I explain it?"


Catherine cradled Vincent's face in her hands as she tried to find the words. "This is where I want to be, my love...where I need to be. I'm more fulfilled, more content than I've ever been. Yes, I've given some things up, but look at all I've gotten in return. It was the second easiest decision I've ever made, right after the one to fall in love with you."


This last elicited a tiny smile, heralding the breeching of the dam of Vincent's pain.


Sensing that she was finally getting through to him, Catherine pressed her advantage and threw her arms about him, burying her face in the wild mass of mane flowing over his shoulders. She murmured into his ear, "You don't have to do one single thing, just be yourself. That's all I'll ever need."


Vincent groaned as he threw back his head, freed by Catherine's words from the terrible anxieties which had stolen his sleep, marred his peace, and almost ruined his union with this remarkable woman. His arms reached up and clasped Catherine to his chest. He heard her softly whisper, "Yes! Hold me! Tighter!" and complied so willingly, with such a full heart, that he nearly crushed her. His mouth sought hers, descended and captured it, banishing the despair and longing they both had felt for too long.


Suddenly, a small voice from far down the passageway cut through the passionate intensity of their reunion. "Mom?"


Catherine drew back, breathless, a small smile of apology on her lips. "I forgot all about Geoffrey! When I saw you leaving, I asked him to wait for me in his chamber. By now he must be frantic with worry." Her fingers clutched spasmodically against her Bondmate's shoulders, anxious to stay with him, knowing she should comfort her son.


Vincent nodded, taking her hands and kissing their palms. "Go to him. I will wait for you."


As she rose, she urged him to come with her. "He's been concerned about you, my love. Perhaps we should both go to him?"


Rising in one graceful, fluid motion, he reached out and hugged her -- one fierce, brief hug. "We shall go...together."


_ _ _


Tucking him in and brushing a kiss against his freckled nose, Catherine assured her son, "We'll wake you in the morning."


Vincent knelt beside the bed where Catherine sat. "I am sorry to have worried you, Geoffrey."


"So...you're not sick or anything? And you're not mad at me for anything? Everything's OK?" His eyes still held a trace of suspicion, despite his Mother's reassurances. He knew she was right, but...but he just had to be sure.


Vincent nodded gravely, then bent to place a tender kiss on his brow. He allowed his fingers to cradle the youngster's face for a moment. "Everything is fine. Sometimes I lose my way, Geoffrey, but your Mother is always here to set me back on the right path."


The young boy smiled and replied, "Yeah. She does that for me, too! We're pretty lucky to have her, huh?"


Smiling at his son's fervent words, Vincent agreed. "Yes, we are." He looked up into the glowing face of his beloved and murmured, "We are both...fortunate...and blessed."


_ _ _


Despite her assurances, it was Geoffrey who woke her again the next morning. Groggy from a sleepless night...a night filled with loving affirmation...Catherine nudged Vincent awake and they hastened to begin their morning routine.